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Theory and Ideological Critique of “Little Miss Sunshine”


Little Miss Sunshine is a 2006 movie written by Michael Ardnt. The comedy drama movie is the work of Jonathan Dayton and wife Valerie Faris. It stars Alarn Arkin, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin as Olive, and Toni Collette. Filmed in California and Arizona, the movie took about one month. It later premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie is basically about a Cinderella story about a certain average girl whose dream was to become a dream queen. The ideals of pageantry and glamour have been ideals in our American culture for many young people in the recent past. The aim of this paper is to carry out an analysis of the film’s theory and ideological critique.

Ideology can be defined as the tacit cultural norms in the society. It is how individuals in the society see themselves and how they also interact with others. The American society, just like any other society has its own unspoken values that include self entitlement and gender roles. Self entitlement accordingly is the right for one to own property as ascribed by capitalism. Capitalism is known to be a dominant ideology for many Americans. Many films have taken the cue to either criticize this dominant ideological view or reinforce it.

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The film Little Miss Sunshine is a vital film that can be theorized for its normalized subjects. It is an important film as far as the society’s norms and ideals are concerned. Through the theory of gender performance, Judith Butler asserts that “Gender performance is a necessary fiction that naturalizes sex and gender.” She further notes that gender performance is only socially sanctioned by the society. For example the issue of providing for is left to the man but in the films we realize that that role is done by Sheryl as her husband Richard is struggling to keep her business afloat. 

Theorists have for a long time recognized the relationship between an ideology and film as they understand that every film’s endeavor is to also fulfill this ideology, for its purpose in the economic process. The film Little Miss Sunshine is one that seems to reinforce that dominant ideology. Nonetheless, as the film continues, we realize that the film criticizes this dominant American ideology.

As the film starts, Olive is seen watching some old tapes of Miss America pageant. She is seen imitating the contestants and clearly, she is aspiring to be a future contestant. This is because that is the ideal American ideology that has been planted on the people. Interestingly, Olive is not as pretty as Barbie Doll. She is just an average girl; plump and pale. Olives dreams and aspiration are however to be a glamour and celebrated model. The film does the opposite as it presents Olive as a small fry as far as the American ideology is concerned. When Olive has a chance to showcase in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, she is clearly not the favorite but she is determined to attain impossible goal. At one point, we see that Olive is not comfortable with her body and especially her shape. She tries to get her body in shape by refusing foods she considers fatty like ice cream that was offered by her father. Her family however convinces her to eat it and she is seen smiling. Olive here is choosing her happiness over this American ideology. At this juncture, the film is basically creating an ideological gap; that of happiness over what the society expects.

The same ideological concept is also seen when Richard (Olive’s dad) and Dwayne realize that indeed Olive is out of her league. Her mother defends her by saying that they should let Olive be herself. Although Olive does not win the pageantry contest, she is seen doing what makes her happy. She therefore ends being a winner in her won rights. She is seen doing a strip tease to Rick despite protests from the coordinators. The strip tease performance actually creates a further gap between her and her family. This shows what the choices of an individual and what our family expects us to do.

In the film, the idea of societal rules are seen in terms of settled man, the ideal female, the ideal male, marriage, and the notion that America is a place that makes everyone to be happy. The film’s portrayals of these ideals are however shown not to be perfect. The ideal female (and wife in this case) is one who a wife, mother and a perfect companion o her husband. The ideal male is a father and the prefect husband who can be depended upon by his family as represented by most Hollywood films. As is how America is portrayed; an ideal land where people’s problems are solved.

An example of this is when we are introduced to Richard’s family. At first, we see it as a normal and average family. Later into the film we get to know how the family operates and that is when we realize that it is not the ideal kind of a family. Richard, Olive’s father is a motivational speaker. His business seems not to have picked up. His wife, Sheryl has been divorced at least once. Richard’s family has to put up with him. He tries to practice his business skills at home daily and his family has to put up with that. At first, when meeting this family, we get the notion of a normal family. But further into the film, we get to know that it is far from being ideal. Sheryl is the one providing for their family while the husband is struggling to get his business off the ground. This shows us that Richard is struggling with life. He is not the ideal man nor is he settled. His family is in a financial struggle mainly because as the man of the house, he is unable to cater for them. The family is dominated by the female (Sheryl) and this is basically a dysfunctional couple. Although Sheryl is depicted as that ideal female, she is also in problems with her family especially with the many quarrels with her husband.

The film meanwhile lets us peep into the lives of what it considers the ideal males. There is Frank, Dwayne and Edwin. Frank is an adventurer who studied abroad. He is proud of his intimate escapades while abroad. Dwayne is a young and disciplined young man who focuses is the air force while Edwin is seen as a man of action with lots of energy. He was however kicked out of his house for possessing drugs. Although the men may be seen as being that alpha American male, they are in fact far from that and hence cannot be seen as the “ideal men”. For example, Dwayne is a tormented youth who snaps at the lightest opportunity. Frank is a depressed young man who is contemplating suicide while Edwin is a foul-mouth man who later dies because of drug overdose.

Therefore, the idea of America as a happy land where a person’s dreams are achieved is cast otherwise. For the Hoover’s family, one of them is happy apart from Olive. Olive is the family’s beacon of hope. She makes it possible for the family to continue with their journey. She is that binding glue that ensures that the family overcomes their challenges by renewing their family’s hope and their commitment together.


In most films, beauty pageants as characterized the staple of what American glamour is. They are seen as the climax beauty. They are representative of what a beautiful woman is. The film Little Miss Sunshine on the other hand gives a different view of this long held notion through Olive. The film however pokes holes into these pageants through Olive. Olive is a normal healthy girl but who becomes the laughing stock when she tries her hand in the beauty contest as she is seen as being pale and dull for such an affair. Olive is seen as outsider in the business of beauty pageants. She is however not fazed by this and she seems to be so much into the affair. The film therefore presents an complete view of what the American life is. The idea of a perfect marriage does not exist anymore nor is the fact of a perfect male. Richard is one struggling man who is unable to fend for his family and instead the same is done by the wife. We are seen that America can be a land of happiness if people remained true to what they are and not what the society expects of them. Therefore, the film basically enchants the American ideology presenting it in an honest manner. It creates the gap of what the society expects of us and what we can accept either an individuals or as a family.

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